Your author website is your home, your shop window, and your little corner of your favourite café where you can hang out. It’s where you can meet your readers and really give them what they want and need from you. More than anything, it’s the one place where you have full control over how you portray yourself, how you interact with readers and potential readers, and how you can get people to actually be interested in your books and stories.
Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, Pinterest, whatever, these are all great. But in every one of them, you are at the mercy of someone else, some big corporation with its own interests. You don’t control the your data on these sites, nor who can access it, nor how. Their websites can change or disappear on a whim. They are ephemeral. Ask yourself: if you found yourself thrown off Facebook or Twitter tomorrow, how easy would it be to re-establish contact with all the people who followed you?
Your website, however, is yours. That means you need to get it right.
A few months ago, I redesigned this website. I have a book coming out in 2015 (Secrets of the Dragon Tomb) and my website was … well, let’s just say that if you’d burned it, jumped up and down on it, and put it through a blender, it couldn’t have been much worse. It certainly didn’t do the job.
Before I started, I spent a lot of time talking to readers and writers about what they wanted to see in an author’s website, and I spent a lot of time just surfing around, looking at author websites and figuring out what they did right and what they did wrong.
Whether you’re self-publishing your book or you’re being traditionally published, here’s what your author website needs:
Yes, it should be obvious. You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But you’d be surprised at the number of author websites that don’t even list some of their more recent books. If you want people to buy your books, they have to know those books exist.
Here’s what you should have for every single book you’ve published (and for ones coming out soon):
Covers sell books, even if we don’t think they should. They grab attention on a page that would otherwise be dull text, and they tell readers at a glance what type of book it is.
Also, don’t underestimate the power of recognition. The more places that people see your cover, the more likely it is to spark some recognition in them. They may not know why they recognize it, but that recognition leads to interest simply by itself, and the more it’s reinforced, the more likely someone is to develop interest.
This is the same reason why a bad review is better than no review at all; someone might not remember that the review was bad, but they will remember the title or cover, or your name.
If you’re traditionally published, give the full imprint and publisher. For Secrets of the Dragon Tomb, I list “Christy Ottaviano Books | Henry Holt | Macmillan”. If you’re self-published, use whatever you’d put as your publisher on Amazon. If that’s just your name, that’s fine. The name of the publisher makes it easier to order your book.
Your ISBN is the unique identification number for your book. You may share a title or a name with another book or author, but no one else will share your ISBN. Make it easy for librarians and booksellers to order your book by using this. Use your ISBN-13 if you have one.
Different editions will have different ISBNs. As you’re mainly including the number to help people order your book, if you only want to list one, use the one for the edition that you want people to order.
Be explicit here. Young Adult Contemporary. Historical Fantasy. Whatever. Yeah, yeah, I know your book transcends genre. But do it anyway.
This is particularly important for any forthcoming books, but quite helpful for your backlist, too.
Think of this as being similar to the jacket copy on your book. This may be the first thing that a potential reader sees about your book, so you need to hook them.
Want some tips for writing a good book description? Check out this blog entry by Ruth Harris, and the links at the end of the entry.
Don’t, though, just re-use the jacket copy or the Goodreads / Amazon description of your book.
Links to where you can buy or preorder the book
Don’t give a reader the chance to forget your book. If they’re interested, and they want the book, give them a chance to buy it right now.
Use a ‘buy’ button or a list of links. While it’s good to give a few options for the main stores (e.g., Indiebound, Amazon, Barnes and Noble), don’t overdo it. If you offer too many choices, the chances are your reader’s eyes will glaze over.
If people like the cover, and they like the description, then they’re going to want to see if they’re actually going to like your book. In a bookstore, they can flip your book open and read the opening. Give them the same opportunity on your website, and make it easy.
The first few chapters is an excellent sample to offer. Don’t just make it available as a PDF to download, though, because that’s a pain for readers, and they may well not bother. Make the sample a proper web page.
In other words, someone saying how utterly fantastic your book is.
This kind of social proof actually works. And it doesn’t particularly matter who it’s from. Just because you can’t get Stephen King or JK Rowling to blurb your book doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bother. Even a quote from someone everyone knows is your best friend will work.
Reader / Discussion Guides (Optional)
Useful for school discussions and book groups.
If you are writing a series, it is absolutely essential that you make the order of the books completely clear. It’s not always easy to tell from the books themselves (some publishers seem to delight in making it impossible to work out which book comes in what order), and it’s even harder on Amazon. Make it easy!
A Proper Homepage / Frontpage
Your homepage should not be your blog, and it should not be a ‘splash’ page.
In a high proportion of cases, your homepage is the first thing a visitor is going to see. They might know absolutely nothing about you at all.
Suppose someone knows nothing about you and they land on your homepage. Now suppose that homepage is your blog.
Look at your last few blog entries. Would you be totally, 100% happy that the first thing (and maybe the only thing) a potential reader sees about you is one of those blog entries? Does that blog entry tell the visitor who you are and what you write? Does it tell the visitor about your new book? Is it, in fact, a rant about root vegetables?
Your blog is probably not what you want to lead with.
Splash pages used to be pretty popular, but I really thought we were done with them. They never were a good idea. A splash page is a homepage that basically either has a big graphic or picture with an ‘Enter’ button or a list of links to main parts of the site.
It’s a bad idea because it’s a wasted opportunity. These new visitors who don’t know much or anything about you, you don’t have them for long. If they’re just curious, you’ve got very little time to hook them. The first thing they see should be either about you or about your book. It shouldn’t just be a pretty picture. Also, a lot of your visitors may now be using mobile devices. Are they really going to be happy if you make them download a gigantic image without getting what they’re looking for?
So, what should be on your homepage?
Your Latest Book
Including, in summary at least, most of the stuff from the ‘books’ section, above.
With a publication date!
If you have a forthcoming book as well as a current one, include that too. Let readers know you’ve got more coming up!
Whether this or your current book gets higher emphasis will depend on how close to release date your next books is.
A brief biography
Not a full biography, but a brief introduction, preferably with a photo. Remember, not everyone knows who you are, and this may be the one page where you get a chance to introduce yourself before they zoom off to look at videos of amusing cats and photos of Tom Hiddleston.
Your latest blog entry (if you have a blog)
Yes, I said don’t make your front page your blog, but there’s nothing wrong with having an excerpt from your latest blog entry on your front page. Stick to about 50 words and possibly an image, and you’ll be fine. This way you give visitors a taste that they can follow up, but you don’t get in the way of the primary purpose of the front page, which is to introduce you and your book(s).
It also lets readers know that you do actually update your website. There’s nothing more frustrating than coming across an author website that hasn’t been updated for years. (Well, there is, but, you know, exaggerating for effect and all that…)
As I said, ‘social proof’ is important, and you should try to get a good quote in pretty early on. That someone liked your book and is willing to say so publicly will at least give your potential readers a reason to look further.
Space for highlighting other content
From time-to-time there’s going to be something you want to promote on your website. A competition, for example, or a piece of important news. Whatever. If you have a space (or spaces) already set aside for that, you won’t have to shoehorn it in awkwardly when it does come up.
Forthcoming Event and Latest News
I’ll talk about these more later, but if you have separate Events and News sections, then including one of each (in summary) on the front page is a good idea.
Social Media Links
Every page on your website should have links to whatever social media platforms you use. Websites are good for presenting information, and blogs are good for keeping people in the loop and starting conversations, but if people want to interact with you more (and you want them to, right?) then social media is where you’re going to do it. Only include them if you actually use those platforms, though. For example, I have a Google+ profile, but I never, ever use Google+, so I don’t link to it. I’m not going to be interacting with anyone there.
Put the links in the header, sidebar or footer of each page. Just putting them on your ‘contact’ page probably isn’t going to do much good.
Don’t overdo it, though. Where do you want to actually want to interact with me? If you’re on a dozen different platforms, don’t list all of them. Direct me to where you want me. Three or four is good. Why not more? Too much choice can overwhelm people, at which point they’ll either click something random or not click at all.
There are probably two main reasons that people are coming to your website (discounting people who arrive randomly or by accident) and those are to find out more about you or about your books.
A brief bio is the absolute minimum, along with a photo. And, yes, you must have a photo. Unless you have a really, really good reason not to include one (which doesn’t include the argument that you don’t photograph well … been there, done that), it’s essential. People have a strong urge to see what you look like when they are making a connection to you.
A Way to Contact You
A contact form is probably the best option, because then you don’t have to expose your email address to spammers. Don’t use a ‘captcha’. It’s just an irritation to your readers. There are far better ways of dealing with contact form spam.
If you choose to use an email address instead of a contact form, consider setting up a disposable one that you can get rid of if it attracts too much spam.
If you have an agent and / or publisher, include contact details for them too. Same goes for a publicist, if you employ one.
News and Events
If you have regular events / appearances and regular news, you should include pages listing these. If you don’t, then don’t! There’s nothing worse (again!) than a news page that has the last piece of news from a year ago, or no forthcoming events at all. You might as well nail a piece of paper to your head saying ‘This author just can’t be bothered’.
As a rough guide, if you know that you will always have at least one forthcoming event scheduled or you know that you will have a real news item once a month, then go for it. Otherwise, just make this part of your blog, but assign special ‘Events’ and ‘News’ categories so that visitors can view all of those items easily.
If you’ve only got a dozen or fewer reviews, you should probably place them strategically around the pages of your website. If you’ve got more, make a page (or page-per-book) of them. There’s a good chance that no one will actually read them, but having them lets readers know that other people liked your book enough to say so. Social proof, again.
Sharing buttons are a bit of a contradiction. They are, at once, both absolutely essential and a complete disaster. If you want to people to share your content, they’re much more likely to do it if there’s an easy button to click. However, the share buttons provided by Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and the rest are awful. Each one of them downloads great big files that slow down your website, sometimes to a crawl, and which use up valuable data allowances for people on mobile devices.
Your best option is to have share links for the various services coded directly into your theme or template. For example, you could include share links to Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ in WordPress through this code placed in the theme files:
Now, most of you aren’t programmers, and if you aren’t having someone create a theme for you, you’ll need to either find a plugin that does this without any of the unnecessary download crud, or take the performance hit (in which case, make sure you only use the absolutely essential share buttons, because every additional one adds overhead and slows the site).
If you’re on WordPress, this plugin claims to add lightweight social media buttons without any of the crud you normally get. Disclaimer: I haven’t used this myself so I can’t say for sure if its claims are true.
Actually, you don’t have to have a blog. A blog gives people reasons to come back to your site, rather than just visiting for specific information, but it takes a lot of effort, and it’s only worth doing if you enjoy blogging.
A Press Kit
You should include the following in your press kit:
- A short biography – just a paragraph or two. Maybe 50 – 100 words
- A medium biography – roughly 150 – 200 words
- A long biography – roughly 500 words
- A photo – at various sizes. A good guide would be small (maybe 100 – 150px wide), medium (maybe 300 – 350px), and a high-resolution photo suitable for printing (you want at least 3 inches wide at 300 px per inch, so at least 900px wide, but preferably more).
- Specific info about each book
- Book covers, again with at least a small and a high-resolution version
- Contact information for you and your agent
- Sample interview questions and answers – remember, not everyone will have time to read your book
- Optionally include samples of reviews, but only if they are reviews from respected reviewers or publications
- Information about any awards won, particularly if anyone will have heard of them
All of this stuff should be on your website, as web pages. But, ideally, you should also include it as a single zipped folder for downloading. Make it clear what is in the zipped folder when you do so. You may want a ‘light’ version without the high-resolution images for download as well, which may be more useful for bloggers. If you’ve no idea what zipped files and folders are, here’s a brief, simple guide from the BBC.
Appearances / School Visits Information
If you’re available for appearances or school visits (either in person or via Skype), give clear information about how you can be booked.
Okay, so that’s stuff that pretty much every author website needs. Next time I’ll talk about some other things that are important to bear in mind when you’re building your author website.
Feel free to leave any comments or questions below, or any suggestions for what else you think is essential for an author website.
Update October 9, 2014: Part 2 of this series is now up! It’s slightly more technical, but no less important.